LIFE IS A FIGHT THE JUSTIN WREN STORY

Black Belt - - SCREEN SHOTS - STORY BY MARK JA­COBS PHO­TOS COUR­TESY OF WA­TER 4

Out such a tremu­lous And then from the depths of the woods went ut­ter de­spair as may and pro­longed wail of mourn­ful fear and hope from the earth. be imag­ined to fol­low the flight of the last — Joseph Con­rad, Heart of Dark­ness

Most peo­ple don’t know much about that part of the map that sits in the cen­ter of the African con­ti­nent, what was called in Joseph Con­rad’s day “the Congo” but is now of­fi­cially termed the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of the Congo, a per­haps wish­ful name given the coun­try’s per­pet­ual rul­ing mix of tyranny and anar­chy. The few fleet­ing men­tal im­ages any­one might have of the re­gion of­ten owe them­selves to Con­rad’s over­wrought but es­timable novella Heart of Dark­ness, which fol­lows the jour­ney of an English steam­boat cap­tain up a river to meet with the mad trad­ing-post man­ager Kurtz and dis­cover the hor­rific in­sights into the hu­man soul he’s gleaned af­ter re­sid­ing too long in the wilds.

Justin Wren knows the Congo much bet­ter than most and has gleaned a bit more of that hor­rific dark­ness than most of us could bear. Wren, though, had al­ready learned to bear quite a bit in life. Dur­ing his 30 years, he’s been a pro­fes­sional mixed-mar­tial arts fighter, a mis­sion­ary, a na­tional wrestling cham­pion, a drug ad­dict, a par­tic­i­pant on the high­est-rated sea­son of The Ulti

mate Fighter and, fi­nally, a spokesman for pos­si­bly the most op­pressed peo­ple on earth, the Mbuti Pyg­mies.

It was in 2011, on his first trip to the Congo rain­for­est, as he stood in a Pygmy vil­lage sur­rounded by peo­ple dy­ing of mal­nu­tri­tion, dis­ease and lack of hope, that Wren at last found his real pur­pose in life. The Mbuti chief took him aside and asked him if he’d act as their voice to the out­side world, alert­ing hu­man­ity to the tragedy un­fold­ing there. It was a re­quest Wren could never have de­nied. He knew what it was like to stand up for oth­ers just as he knew what it was like to be the vic­tim.

Texas Strong

Wren grew up in Texas, a large, some­what goofy kid who never quite fit in. “I was the new kid in school and was prob­a­bly the last one still rock­ing a chili bowl hair­cut,” he re­called. “I also had a bit of a speech im­ped­i­ment that I guess made me a tar­get for other kids and left me a lit­tle timid.”

Although larger than most of his peers, Wren re­called that he of­ten had to fight back against bul­lies, in­clud­ing when he saw them pick­ing on oth­ers. The anti-bul­ly­ing mes­sage is still one he tries to high­light when he speaks to young peo­ple, telling them that there’s no such thing as an in­no­cent by­stander in such cases, that you’re ei­ther help­ing put a stop to the bul­ly­ing or you’re be­ing a silent sup­porter of it.

Wren al­ways felt that urge to stand up for those who were be­ing mis­treated for the sim­ple rea­son that many times he wished some­one had stood up for him when no one ever did. At least, no one did un­til he found his first wrestling coach, Alan Rodger, a man who changed Wren’s life by in­tro­duc­ing him to the sport that would give him con­fi­dence.

“I think a lot of times wrestling doesn’t get the credit for be­ing a true mar­tial art, but it is,” Wren said. “It’s re­ally all about re­spect and hard work like other mar­tial arts are. And any good coach or mar­tial arts in­struc­tor seeks to pull the great­ness out of his stu­dents. That’s what Alan Rodger did. I look at all the wis­dom and guid­ance he poured into me, and he did the same for ev­ery kid that stepped onto the mat for him.”

Wrestling Up

Wren blos­somed as a grap­pler, win­ning a na­tional high-school ti­tle and be­com­ing the U.S. Ju­nior Greco-Ro­man cham­pion in 2005. Af­ter high school, he earned a spot in an elite Olympic train­ing pro­gram, but a se­vere arm in­jury soon ended that. Af­ter a gru­el­ing re­cov­ery, which led to a painkiller ad­dic­tion, he was set to be­gin col­lege and wres­tle at Iowa State Univer­sity when he was of­fered the chance to fight on an MMA card as a late re­place­ment.

“I orig­i­nally got in­ter­ested in wrestling be­cause of MMA,” Wren said. “I’d found th­ese old UFC VHS tapes in a store and was drawn in by the early days where it was like taek­wondo ver­sus sumo. I said, ‘I bet th­ese guys don’t

over the edge, He had made that last stride, he had stepped my hes­i­tat­ing foot. while I had been per­mit­ted to draw back — Heart of Dark­ness

get bul­lied.’ At 13, I knew I wanted to be a UFC fighter.”

Wren’s ta­lent for fight­ing was im­me­di­ately ev­i­dent, even­tu­ally lead­ing to his se­lec­tion for sea­son 10 of The

Ul­ti­mate Fighter, which fea­tured a mix of es­tab­lished heavy­weights and new­com­ers like Wren, who at 22 was the sea­son’s youngest con­tes­tant.

“I think Justin was the first or sec­ond pick for our team,” re­called Trevor Wittman, one of Wren’s coaches on TUF. “He was very coach­able and tal­ented, but what re­ally stood out was his per­son­al­ity. He was a very kind, quiet per­son, and I’m a big be­liever [that] the qui­etest peo­ple you meet are usu­ally the tough­est.”

On a show known for pro­mot­ing crude and ob­nox­ious per­son­al­i­ties, Wren was some­thing of an odd­ity: the po­lite kid who could fight. He ended up los­ing a close de­ci­sion to even­tual champ Roy Nel­son, giv­ing a good ac­count of him­self in the process. UFC boss Dana White pre­dicted a bright fu­ture for Wren, who started train­ing full time with Wittman in Colorado af­ter the show ended.

But even as he was reach­ing all his goals, Wren’s sub­stance-abuse prob­lems were spi­ral­ing out of con­trol.

Down­ward Slide

One gets the sense that, de­spite be­ing a world-class heavy­weight fighter, for a long time Wren never got over the in­se­cu­rity of be­ing tormented as a child. Even as his fight ca­reer was tak­ing off, he found him­self turn­ing to al­co­hol and drugs to keep a lin­ger­ing de­pres­sion at bay, at one point even at­tempt­ing sui­cide by over­dos­ing.

Ini­tially, the sub­stance abuse didn’t af­fect his ca­reer; the wins con­tin­ued to pile up. But even­tu­ally, he be­gan miss­ing train­ing ses­sions and com­ing to the gym hung over. Things came to a head when Wittman’s other fight­ers de­manded that Wren be kicked off the team.

“At the time, I didn’t re­al­ize what he was go­ing through — I thought he was just be­ing lazy,” Wittman said. “Justin is such a car­ing guy, I think he didn’t want to worry me. Even in the worst sit­u­a­tions, I don’t think Justin Wren ever wants you to worry about him.”

But when his other fight­ers all wanted Wren re­moved from the squad, Wittman had no choice but to ac­qui­esce. Wren re­called it as prob­a­bly the low­est mo­ment in his life, sit­ting in his car out­side the gym af­ter be­ing cut from the team. “I sat there and cried and cried,” he said. “Now I wasn’t just go­ing through ad­dic­tion and de­pres­sion, but my child­hood dream had turned into a night­mare.”

Fi­nally, Wren was con­vinced by ac­quain­tances ac­tive in Chris­tian outreach pro­grams to get help. Although he pos­sesses an aver­sion to or­ga­nized re­li­gion be­cause of neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ences, he was will­ing to try any­thing at that point.

Wren isn’t quite hes­i­tant to dis­cuss the depths of his re­li­gious be­liefs — he de­tails them in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Fight for the For­got­ten: How a Mixed Mar­tial Artist Stopped Fight­ing for Him­self and Started Fight­ing for Oth

ers — but he doesn’t go out of his way to talk about the sub­ject ei­ther, seem­ingly cau­tious to not push them on oth­ers. The best way to de­scribe his be­liefs is to note that dur­ing his re­cov­ery, he said he ex­pe­ri­enced God’s love, which he be­lieves is more about hav­ing a re­la­tion­ship with God than about re­li­gion. Dur­ing this process, he also said he ex­pe­ri­enced a vi­sion, some­thing un­like any­thing he’d been through be­fore.

“I was in a des­per­ate place and wanted to make a dif­fer­ence in life, but I didn’t know what or where to do this,” he said. “I know it sounds nuts, but it was the most vivid thing I’ve ever seen that didn’t ac­tu­ally hap­pen to me. I won­dered if I was hav­ing a men­tal break. But then three weeks later, the vi­sion was com­ing true.”

The vi­sion in­volved a group of suf­fer­ing, op­pressed peo­ple whom a fel­low mis­sion­ary iden­ti­fied to him, from Wren’s de­scrip­tion, as the Mbuti Pyg­mies. The tribe has resided in the Congo since time im­memo­rial but has suf­fered se­vere depre­da­tions of late. In re­cent years, the group’s lands have been seized while the peo­ple have been sub­jected to ev­ery­thing from geno­cide to mod­ern-day slav­ery at the hands of sur­round­ing tribes.

Vi­sion Quest

Fol­low­ing his vi­sion, Wren trav­eled to the Congo in 2011 and was quickly taken by th­ese diminu­tive peo­ple who, de­spite such mis­ery, couldn’t

com­pre­hend his sto­ries of con­stant de­pres­sion and failed sui­cide. Why? There was no ana­log for th­ese things in Pygmy so­ci­ety.

“When you meet them and see their des­per­ate need, it’s shock­ing how kind and sweet they are even in that des­per­a­tion,” said Jim Ste­wart, who works with Water4, a hu­man­i­tar­ian or­ga­ni­za­tion that’s helped Wren bring clean drinking wa­ter to the Congo tribes. “I have no doubt when Justin walked into that first Pygmy vil­lage, they had him. It’s a love af­fair — they love him as much as he loves them. But what made that work is who Justin is. When you first meet him, he looks at you and you see the love and you can’t help but love him.”

Wren made ad­di­tional trips to the Congo, fi­nally de­cid­ing the best way to help the Pyg­mies would be to gain an un­der­stand­ing of how they live. So he made what would seem an al­most un­fath­omable choice for some­one raised in the com­forts of 21st-cen­tury Amer­ica: He moved to the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of the Congo, one of the poor­est and most danger­ous places on earth, and spent a year liv­ing in the for­est with the Pyg­mies.

“Ev­ery­thing there can kill you — the wa­ter, the food, malaria, scor­pi­ons,” he said. “You’re liv­ing in a war zone in one of the harsh­est en­vi­ron­ments on earth. It’s dif­fi­cult for Amer­i­cans to grasp, but think of ev­ery sin­gle com­fort you ever had ripped away from you and a lot of your fam­ily killed. One of my good friends there was born into slav­ery. She’s lost five of her seven chil­dren and is now blind from con­tam­i­nated wa­ter. She has to walk hours ev­ery day just to get some dirty wa­ter to give her chil­dren, which she knows is slowly killing them.”

It be­came ob­vi­ous to Wren that clean wa­ter was one of the main im­ped­i­ments to im­prov­ing the con­di­tion of the Pyg­mies. He searched for meth­ods to drill wells and even­tu­ally found Water4, which, be­sides erect­ing wa­ter wells in im­pov­er­ished re­gions, teaches lo­cals how to do this for them­selves to pro­mote em­pow­er­ment.

Matt Han­gen, Water4’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer, taught Wren the ba­sics of set­ting up a well and then worked with him in Africa on sev­eral of the tougher projects. He re­called one par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult well they worked on in a Pygmy vil­lage:

“It was one of most tech­ni­cally chal­leng­ing wells I ever drilled. I’d been there for three weeks and had to leave, so we worked through the night to fin­ish. We fi­nally fin­ished at dawn, and the well be­gan pump­ing out fresh wa­ter. The chief of the tribe was watch­ing and said, ‘Thank you so much. Now that we have this well, we know that we are hu­man. We’re not an­i­mals.’ The pro­fun­dity of that state­ment is some­thing I’ll never for­get — that just hav­ing clean wa­ter makes you feel more hu­man.”

Resur­gence

Wren could not be blamed for per­haps suf­fer­ing from a bit of sur­vivor’s guilt on re­turn­ing to Amer­ica. He had be­come so close to the Pyg­mies that one fam­ily ac­tu­ally adopted him. He’d been given the name “Eféosa,” which means “The Man Who Loves Us.” (That’s in ad­di­tion to his orig­i­nal Pygmy name “Mbuti MangBO,” lit­er­ally “the big Pygmy.”) But while his for­eign fam­ily was strug­gling just to stay alive back in Africa, Wren had re­turned to the land of plenty.

He said for the first few months he was home, he slept on the floor, think­ing how

the Pyg­mies were still sleep­ing on the dirt in their leaf huts. He clearly wanted to do more to help them, to let peo­ple know about the cri­sis there. Fi­nally, he re­al­ized he had a ready-made plat­form that could be used to spread this mes­sage to mil­lions around the world: He would re­turn to pro­fes­sional fight­ing.

Wren ad­mit­ted this wasn’t an en­tirely self­less act. He had left MMA when he was just start­ing to reach his full po­ten­tial, and there re­mained a lin­ger­ing sense of un­fin­ished busi­ness.

Even in the wilds of the Congo, MMA had never com­pletely left his mind — like the time he and some col­leagues were stopped by sol­diers seek­ing to shake them down for money. It was a dicey sit­u­a­tion, with Wren and his com­pan­ions un­will­ing to pay a bribe for safe con­duct. Even­tu­ally, Wren pulled out an old UFC trad­ing card with his pic­ture on it. Show­ing it to the sol­diers, he ex­plained how he was a well-known pro­fes­sional fighter in the States. Im­pressed, the sol­diers said they had the lo­cal wrestling cham­pion as part of their unit, and an im­promptu match was ar­ranged.

“I picked him up a few times just to show what I could have done to him, but I then set him down gen­tly,” Wren said. “We were lit­er­ally sur­rounded by sol­diers, all hold­ing guns, and I thought I could win them over. So I taught them a few take­downs and sub­mis­sion holds, and they were happy and let us go. It’s funny, but mar­tial arts can take you all around the world. It’s sort of a uni­ver­sal lan­guage.”

Wren wasn’t quite ready to give up speak­ing that lan­guage, so he be­gan train­ing again in 2015, sign­ing a con­tract with the Bel­la­tor pro­mo­tion. Between travel back and forth to Africa and re­cur­ring bouts of malaria, which he oc­ca­sion­ally suf­fers cour­tesy of pathogens from the Congo, he had min­i­mal prepa­ra­tion for his first two come­back bouts. Although he won them, the rust from a five-year lay­off was plainly ev­i­dent.

Higher Pur­pose

It’s easy to think of Wren as a Mother Theresa–type fig­ure (if Mother Theresa pum­meled peo­ple in­side a cage) be­cause he re­ally is one of those ex­tremely rare hu­man be­ings who de­vote their lives to the bet­ter­ment of hu­man­ity, even to their own detri­ment. Thus, one can some­times for­get that he’s also a very bad dude.

In his third come­back bout for Bel­la­tor in March 2017, Wren fi­nally shook off the ring rust to re­mind peo­ple why ev­ery­one was once so high on him as a fighter. Go­ing against Ro­man Piz­zo­lato, Wren quickly achieved a clinch and, af­ter soft­en­ing up Piz­zo­lato with a knee, back-stepped while still hold­ing his op­po­nent tight. Then Wren sud­denly fell back and twisted, hurl­ing the heavy­weight over him in a pic­tureper­fect lat­eral drop.

“Right when I threw him, I said to my­self, ‘Oh, that felt good — I’ve been miss­ing that,’” Wren re­called.

He pro­ceeded to smash knees, el­bows and punches into Piz­zo­lato, and when­ever his op­po­nent would try to scram­ble out from un­der him, Wren was all over him, en­twin­ing his limbs around the man like a boa con­stric­tor wrap­ping around a tree branch. And when Piz­zo­lato fi­nally tried to stand, Wren hugged him tight from be­hind and arched all the way back­ward, rock­et­ing Piz­zo­lato over him and onto the back of his head in an ex­quis­ite belly-to-back su­plex. Wren mounted his foe and, ma­chine-like, be­gan pis­ton­ing el­bows into his face un­til he fi­nally slipped into a head-and-arm choke to fin­ish the fight.

It was a clear mes­sage that Wren is back and look­ing to make a se­ri­ous run at the Bel­la­tor ti­tle. More im­por­tant, ev­ery win gives him ad­di­tional ex­po­sure to re­mind peo­ple of the causes he rep­re­sents. Af­ter each fight, he sees a surge in do­na­tions to his Fight for the For­got­ten foun­da­tion and to Water4. So he has no in­ten­tion of quit­ting. He said that, if any­thing, he’s a much stronger mixed mar­tial artist now. Whereas be­fore he was fight­ing solely for him­self, now he’s fight­ing for some­thing big­ger.

“The first time around in my ca­reer, it was all about me,” he said. “I would get my hand raised in the cage and think, ‘Is this it?’ ‘Is this all there is?’ It has to be about more than that.

“If I can fight for the next five years to help my Pygmy fam­ily for the next 50, that’s what I’m go­ing to do. I’m a fighter any­way; it’s in my DNA. But you know, life is a fight.”

To find out how you can con­trib­ute to Justin Wren’s causes, visit water4.org/fight­forthe­for­got­ten/.

re­sent­ing I found my­self back in the sepul­chral city to the sight of peo­ple hur­ry­ing through the streets filch a lit­tle money from each other, to de­vour their in­fa­mous cook­ery, to gulp their un­whole­some dreams. beer, to dream their in­signif­i­cant and silly — Heart of Dark­ness

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